© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2021

Stop and stare

Ashleigh Yates

Police are concerned about the rise of digital rubbernecking. So, why do people do it?

Wayne Comm knows what it is like to be the attention of "rubberneckers’’ – trapped in his mangled car he could see people driving by slowly, looking and making comments.

One motorist crashed into the back of a fire engine attending the accident as they strained to look at Comm’s car on Christchurch’s Brougham St.

Comm was travelling to work and turning right when his car was hit by another motorist and thrown onto traffic lights.

The scene of Wayne's crash - Columbo St and Brougham St intersection 

As he sat in his car panicking, Comm tried to make sense of what had happened while an off duty nurse, who was two cars behind him, stayed with him until emergency services arrived.

Trapped in his car, he knew people were rubbernecking.

“An ambulance officer was sitting in my passenger’s seat giving me medication. Half way through the fire brigade cutting me out of the car, the ambulance driver said `Damn, someone has just gone and crashed into the back of a fire engine’.”

“People were driving slowly and watching. I could hear people saying ‘God hope he is OK”, which I felt to be so nosey. The road was then closed off after the crash with the fire truck.’’

Comm’s experience highlights the danger of rubbernecking – something police say has become more problematic in the age of photo-capable cellphones.

Canterbury acting road policing manager Kelly Larsen said people were taking photographs of crash scenes and posting them on social media.

Kelly Larsen - Acting Road Policing Manager 

“Availability of cellphones and increasing use of social media means that we are seeing more images posted online and certainly with the power of social media, it means that imaging is spread very, very quickly.’’ “Obviously if a family member sees that online and recognises a vehicle or recognises a picture of someone, before police have had the chance to advise them, that’s going to be extremely distressing.’’

Rubberneckers, Larsen said, caused frustration among police staff because they stopped the flow of traffic at a time when emergency staff wanted to keep the scene safe for everyone driving past.

“Distracted driving is a concern and poses a risk to drivers if they are not paying attention to the road then equally be involved in a crash themselves.

“There’s emergency service workers so people actually need to be paying attention to the hazards on the road as opposed to looking at the crash.’’

New Zealand Transport Agency figures show in 2014, diverted attention while driving was identified as a contributing factor in 1053 crashes, of which 21 were fatal, 159 were serious injuries crashes and 873 were minor injury crashes.

These crashes resulted in 22 deaths, 191 serious injuries and 1179 minor injuries.

Diverted attention includes activities where drivers’ attention is directed away from the road, including talking with passengers, using cellphones and rubbernecking.

So why are we so curious when it comes to car crashes? Why do we slow down to look at a crash? Is it to figure out what caused your 40minute delay? Do we want to try and work out how the crash was caused or to see if anyone if hurt?

Psychologist Corina Grennell said rubbernecking was part of human nature. The use of social media had created a blurred line between what should be public and what should remain private.

“Humans are sensitive to noticing anything that is novel and different from the norm and also we are very attuned to be on the lookout for danger. A car crash meets both criteria.’’

Technology made photo taking and sharing simple and quick, which Grennell said allowed no time for reflection by the photographer.

“The nature of the internet is to distance people from what they post from those who may view it. This tends to decrease empathy, as we do not see the reaction of the people seeing the information.

“Empathy tends to work best when we get feedback from others from their facial expression, tone of voice and other non-verbal cues. In other words, a person who posts a photo of a car accident is not thinking about the person who may view the photo, let alone think that it may be seen by a loved one of the crash victim.’’

Comm may never know if photos of his crash were taken, but the memories of the it are still vivid. Even though the crash occurred five years ago, he avoids the Columbo St-Brougham St intersection today.

Comm broke his collar bone, right leg and ankle in the crash and was off work for 12 weeks.

His message to rubberneckers – “Don’t do it. Keep your eyes on the road”.